I don’t really like TV. Aside from the occasional Law & Order
episode, I’m pretty much content to read a book or play an instrument. Generally the only time the TV consistently comes on is during the NFL, NHL, and NBA’s seasons (I have to root for the home team, don’t I?). As an alternative to TV, I generally indulge in something that’s held my interest since I was a little kid: Japanese anime. Ever since my first time watching Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network’s Toonami program block, I’ve always been impressed and entertained by the high level of quality that’s usually invested in Japanese cartoons. While I have to admit that I hardly have the time to keep up with the latest trends in the cartoon world, I still make a point to watch some series’ that I consider to be “classic” from time to time. Among these is the six episode FLCL
, or Fooly Cooly
anime. Arguably one of the oddest cartoons in existence, the plot revolves around a young internet police woman beating a kid in the head with a Rickenbacker bass in an attempt to produce a space pirate from an one-dimensional portal contained in within the boy’s skull. The show continues its acid trip goodness with hilarious metaphors abound, complete with spectacular animation and action sequences. To top it all off, the music is pretty damn sweet as well.
Said music is basically a selection of greatest hits from Japanese rock band the pillows. Usually when one thinks of Japanese music unintelligible, annoyingly high-pitched, and synthesizer-driven J-pop drivel springs immediately to mind. However, Japan has a much deeper music scene than just that. From the progressive speed-metal of X Japan
, to the punk rock goodness of Kenzi & The Trips
, to the modern sounds of the Polysics
, the country has a diverse and deep musical scene of both past and present, that should be exploited by foreigners. the pillows are pretty much the cream of the crop on the Japanese music scene. They’re that old (they’ve been around since the late 80s), prolific (16 albums, 3 compilations, 3 soundtracks, and one “self cover” disc), yet overall appealing (they’re among the best-selling artists in Japan to this day) band that everyone respects and apparently, can’t get enough of. Throughout their illustrious career so far, few fans would deny that the pillows’ Happy Bivouac
is the band’s best rock-oriented moment. Released in 1999, the album was the first to feature bassist Jun Suzuki, who joins a cast of rotating bassists who, out of respect to the founding members, are considered as support only.
The traditional line-up of the pillows consists of Sawao Yamanaka as singer/rhythm guitarist, lead guitarist Yoshiaki Manabe, and drummer Shin'ichiro Sato. On Happy Bivouac
the original group, bolstered by Suzuki put forth some of the band’s best material (and for the pillows, that’s saying something). Since the vocals are primarily in Japanese, with a random bit of emphatic English, lyrical interpretation is basically left up to your imagination (unless you speak Japanese, which I would assume would only allow you to appreciate this album even more). Musically, Happy Bivouac
is a roulette of bright sounds and interesting movements, but not to a degree that makes anything seem complicated or unapproachable. the pillows draw inspiration from the Pixies
and other famous indie rock bands, and it’s fairly evident on this (or any other) release of theirs.
Yamanaka and Manabe showcase some significantly infectious chops with the brilliant riffs of songs like “LAST DINOSAUR,” a raucously uplifting piece that’ll make you think “What if the Smiths
were contemporary and Japanese?” “LAST DINOSAUR” works its way from beginning to end with perfect hooks and all-around superb presentation. Everything about the song is absolutely perfect, but above all else Yamanaka and Manabe stand tall as the driving forces. Other spectacular works like the laidback coolness of “CARNIVAL” prove that the pillows’ axe-slingers have style to match their substance. Furthermore, the pillows assert their position as brilliant songwriters with the fantastic sounds of “Beautiful morning without you,” a powerful pseudo-ballad of deucedly epic proportions with a distinctly post-modern utopian sense about it. All over Happy Bivouac
Yamanaka’s voice, which you could equate to a Japanese version of Jeff Mangum with a little bit of the Music
’s Robert Harvey thrown in for emphasis, carries plenty of airy weight, giving him a resonant, charismatic quality that fits the music perfectly. This, combined with the chiming guitars, thumping bass, and quirky drumming, gives the pillows a charming sound on Happy Bivouac
not found on many other albums.
the pillows also pay homage to one of their most highly-regarded peers and influences, the Pixies
. The song “Kim Deal,” a brilliant experimentally poppy classic, is named for the group’s bassist. “Kim Deal” in song form is an excellent example of the way Japanese music should
and oftentimes does
sound, much to the (generally unintentional) ignorance of music lovers the world over. The Blur
-esque melodies of “Back seat dog” also contain a reference to the Pixies, as the pillows can be heard singing the chorus to “Here Comes Your Man” from the band’s album Doolittle
. Un-surprisingly, both song with a little bit of Pixie dust thrown on them have are absolutely incredible, but it’s hard to imagine them being anything less, given their inspiration. Happy Bivouac
runs an emotional gamut, as well. “RUSH” starts of furiously with plenty of punk-influenced goodness with a lemon progressive twist, as does the album’s conclusion, “Alive.” For folk-bluesy elements, you have “Our love and peace” a forlorn piece of pop mastery that keeps things fresh and alive sounding. The virtuosic drumming of “Funny Bunny” preludes yet another addictive dazzler of Japanese indie, with plenty of catchiness to work into it’s free jazz tidings. Even the album’s title track has something to offer, as it’s just the bizarre beat to open such a diverse and inventive album. From the opening guitar lines to the sing-a-long chorus, “HAPPY BIVOUAC” is a worthy way to sum up the album it shares its name with.
After one solid, uninterrupted listen, anyone will admit that the record doesn’t have any bad songs on it. This is the main reason for it being an absolute must-listen classic, besides the fact that not only are there no lemons to be found on Happy Bivouac
, the material to be found here is of extraordinarily first-rate quality. In addition to this, “LAST DINOSAUR” is quite possibly the perfect song, as it manages to not only get better
with every listen, it makes its track-list mates seem tame by comparison. There really is no downside to Happy Bivouac
, except for the fact that not everyone can appreciate such a foreign band (the completely Japanese vocals may turn plenty off). One of the most exciting things about Happy Bivouac
is that it isn’t even the pillows’ best album, yet it’s still a marvelous experience to behold. I can’t recommend Happy Bivouac
enough, nor can I recommend the pillows’ much higher than I do now. I think I may have just reacquainted myself with the world of anime, only I have a new mission now: to find the wonderful, delicately hidden secrets that their soundtracks hold, in the hopes gaining a glimpse into the fabulous music of their land of origin.